In her spare time, Judge Frances Hill writes fantasy stories for her two young granddaughters. They're about strong, kind and empowered women, often incorporating the law and superheroes.
Her older granddaughter, 4-year-old Molly, is very into superheroes, Hill said.
To many, Hill embodies the strong women she writes about in her stories.
Hill, 66, is retiring this year after 12 years on the bench in Monroe County and a lifelong career of public service, which includes founding the Monroe County office of the Court Appointed Special Advocates program to advocate for children.
Friends and colleagues describe her as a dedicated, caring and thoughtful person and judge.
“I’ve always just thought of myself as an advocate and usually an advocate for children,” she said.
After graduating from Purdue University in 1974, Hill returned to her hometown of Columbia City, Indiana, and began work as a case manager for the county welfare department, now Department of Child Services.
She fell in love with the work she was doing but also thought there was something missing, she said. She was motivated to go to law school out of a desire to understand the legalities behind the situations she faced with her clients.
She wanted to understand the whole picture.
After graduating from IU Maurer School of Law and being admitted to the bar in 1980, Hill worked as the Monroe County Juvenile Court Referee, deciding delinquency and Children in Need of Services neglect and abuse cases, for six years.
In that time, she and her husband, George, had their daughter, Sally. Hill felt she needed a change of pace as she raised her daughter, she said. She began teaching at the law school, where she worked for 15 years.
In Hill’s life, family has always come first. She felt fortunate to have a loving, supportive family growing up and still remains close with her brothers, she said. They spend summers together at the family cottage in their hometown.
She calls the experience of being a grandparent “liquid gold.” She has two granddaughters: Molly, 4, and June Francie, 4 months.
“They call her Junebug, because she was born in June, but I call her little Francie,” Hill said.
Hill brought the CASA program to Monroe County in the 1980s before she became a judge. CASA programs around the state and country assign trained volunteers to children in CHINS cases to advocate for them both in and out of the courtroom.
Kristin Bishay, executive director of Monroe County CASA, said the CASA program wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Hill.
“She’s made the difference for so many children that have been harmed in our community,” Bishay said.
Then, in 1999, the Indiana Supreme Court tapped her to create the Indiana Family Court Project. The family court projects around the state emphasize mediation and affordability for family court cases, such as divorce.
Hill, along with attorney Derelle Watson-Duvall, wrote the book on family law: the “Indiana CHINS and Family Law Deskbook,” a resource for attorneys, judges and social workers. Originally published in 1986, it has been updated six times since.
In 2006, a seat opened up on the Monroe County Circuit Court, and Hill was elected. Although she hadn’t previously considered a judicial career, she was excited by the opportunity to influence how the judicial system works for families, she said.
She has always done civil cases, and for the past two years she has shared all the CHINS cases with Judge Stephen Galvin.
Even with her years of experience in family law, Hill said she is always learning in her judgeship.
“I don’t think anybody would ever want a judge who thought, ‘I know everything,’ because then you wouldn’t listen to the facts,” Hill said.
Throughout Hill’s life and career, these words from her mother, “You do what you have to do, and you do the best that you can,” have stuck with her and carried her through difficult times.
“There have been times in this job when I’ve thought, ‘This is too much’ — too busy, too many cases, cases sometimes feel too hard,” Hill said. “I always remember what my mother said.”
While family law, especially cases of neglect and abuse, can be complex and taxing, they can also be extremely rewarding, Hill said.
People often think kids don’t know what’s going on around them, she said, but she disagrees.
“When you’re in foster care, you know you’re in foster care,” Hill said. “You either want to belong to them or you want to go home. Adoption for those kids is belonging.”
Adoptions are always joyful moments, and although Hill does not handle adoptions herself, she tries to attend adoptions for families she worked with in her court to see the happy ending come to fruition.
Other times, the happy endings happen in her courtroom, when parents have received treatment and families are able to reunite. Often, she said, these parents will thank her and the Department of Child Services for stepping in and helping their family.
“I think that’s been very positive to me to see that cycles can be broken,” Hill said.
In retirement, Hill plans to spend more time with her family, garden and volunteer around the community with her husband. She also hopes to come back as a senior judge and have opportunities to do legal trainings, she said.
In 2019, Hill’s seat will be filled by Catherine Stafford, who is running unopposed in the general election this November.
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